July 16, 2010

Rosalyn (The Pretty Things, 1964).
Rosalyn (Bowie).

The Pretty Things consisted of bearded guitarist Dick Taylor; a bizarrity named Vivian St John Prince, always photographed wearing a bowler, who was as much a lunatic behind the drum kit as Keith Moon; the dashing, indifferent Brian Pendleton (in group photos he looked like their lawyer, caught in the shot by mistake); and the thuggish near-twins Phil May and John Stax. In 1964, they released two singles on Fontana that should’ve gotten them arrested, and one was banned in the U.S. Bowie covered them both.

“Rosalyn,” the Pretty Things’ debut 45 from May 1964, is salacious teenage lust. May sings the lyric like a man tearing into a hunk of meat, rolling the name “Roh-sa-LYNN” around in his mouth, chanting it and spitting it out, while the band thrashes on a mutant strain of the Bo Diddley beat for two minutes. The song goes from jealousy to lust to obsession and back again; it begins relentless and ends in madness, May screaming “YEAH-GOTTA-KNOW! YEAH-GOTTA-KNOW!” at the girl who’s upturned his mind.

Bowie and Mick Ronson knew well enough not to tinker with this one, so their version holds up to the original: if it’s a more polished recording, Ronson’s guitar is even more ferocious than Taylor’s—there’s blood in it. It’s a bit unnerving to hear Bowie in total chameleon mode here, as he imitates Phil May’s singing voice, all sneers and slurs (“Rosalyn” was the lead-off track for Pin Ups, and I imagine a few people at the time wondered if Ronson or someone else was singing it). May, years later, tipped his cap: “Dave even screamed in the same places I did,” he told Christopher Sandford.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: “WillemGT,”  “American girl in Paris,” 1973.

I Wish You Would

July 15, 2010

I Wish You Would (Billy Boy Arnold, 1955).
I Wish You Would (The Yardbirds w/Eric Clapton, 1964).
I Wish You Would (The Yardbirds, w/Jeff Beck, 1965).

I Wish You Would (Bowie).

Billy Boy Arnold, born in Chicago during the Depression, was a journeyman in the city’s postwar electric blues scene, working mainly with Bo Diddley (he’s on Diddley’s “I’m a Man”). Tutored on harp by the original Sonny Boy Williamson, Arnold had good luck when he started out, as blues clubs in Chicago now favored amplified harmonica-guitars-drums set-ups over the traditional piano-guitar acts. While during the war every blues joint in town had an upright piano, by 1950 there was hardly a piano left in Chicago, Arnold recalled.

In 1955, tired of being a sideman and told that Chess Records owner Leonard Chess didn’t like him (Chess thought he was too cocky), Arnold cut “I Wish You Would” for Vee-Jay. This was an overnight rewrite of a song Arnold had written for Diddley, “Diddy Diddy Dum Dum,” with the Diddley beat sped up. Arnold’s guitar player on the track, Jody Williams, was tired of traditional blues playing, and his agitated riff fueled the track. Arnold worried that he was blatantly aping Diddley’s sound, but that’s what the label wanted, and the record sold. Arnold still considered himself more a straight blues man. “I didn’t want to be capitalizing on no Bo Diddley type of thing. But once you do something, you’re stuck,” he said later.

“I Wish You Would” is an early rock & roll record with a fatalistic blues heart. Arnold starts out with standards: his woman’s left him, going around town with another man, come back baby, pleading won’t do no good. Then he widens the lens—she left him because he was drinking every night, because he mistreated her, and he’s deserved what he’s gotten. There’s acceptance in Arnold’s voice, and a wryness, too, as if he knows the situation’s never going to straighten out. She might come back, she might go away again: it’s as cyclical and relentless as Williams’ guitar line that repeats, almost non-stop, throughout the track.

Nearly a decade later, The Yardbirds covered “I Wish You Would.” They had been playing the song since they began in ’63, and as it was one of the more commercial songs they had at the time (while still passing muster with their resident purist, Eric Clapton), it was picked as their debut single. While the Yardbirds’ cover was fairly respectful of the original, they trimmed the lyric, excising the man’s part in the mess, and played up the sex. Arnold’s song suggested there was no way out, while the Yardbirds version, which builds to a thrashing rave-up, argues otherwise. They sped up the song, replacing the shaky, thundering beat of the Arnold single with a straight 4/4 attack. “We just sounded young and white,” Clapton wrote in his autobiography.

While the Yardbirds’ “I Wish You Would” didn’t chart, it hit with other aspiring Brit R&B/rock bands, like Davie Jones and the King Bees. It helped that the song was easy to play—it’s basically one chord (A), with a move to G only during the solos, and the bassist and guitarist could play the same riff over and over. More than that, though, the song gave grandeur and mystery to adolescent stumblings; it suggested romance was serious.

Arnold told Richie Unterberger that when you worked a blues club in Chicago in the ’50s, you were among an exiled people. “When you on a job and a club, everybody was from the South. And they all had one thing in common–they was escaping oppression, the thing that gave them the blues in the first place,” he said. “The hard working people who supported the blues, which was all black, they wanted to hear the blues. It was a way of life for them—they lived the life, they go out and hear their music, their singers were singing, experience that the people in the audience had lived. The singers lived the same experience too. [Howling] Wolf and B.B. [King] and all, they lived the same. They worked on the plantations, they had the hardship, they lived under the oppression. They knew what the blues was.”

Still, “I Wish You Would” didn’t reflect this experience. It was new, flashy, a young man’s song. You get the sense that Arnold and Williams are picking apart the blues to find the shiny bits. The Yardbirds, an ocean and a lifetime removed from this (their drummer was a stockbroker in his spare time), took the game even further. “I Wish You Would” granted them access to something beyond their power, so they aped what they could, sped over the rest.

So why did Bowie cover “I Wish You Would,” another decade on? Nostalgia for the R&B circuit days, or Ronson wanting to outplay the young Clapton, or Bowie vaguely recalling his youthful ambitions to be a soul/jazz singer? Bowie’s version rolls along well enough, with Trevor Bolder and Aynsley Dunbar giving propulsion, while the harmonica, which for Arnold and The Yardbirds’ Keith Relf had served as a dueting vocal, is replaced by a Ronson guitar line. Still, something’s way off: Ronson sounds like an automaton while Bowie’s vocal comes off weedy and desperate. He’s less convincing than his teenage self was singing Bobby “Blue” Bland (see “I Pity The Fool”). It’s a harsh, streamlined version of the song, and as hollow as a drum.

Recorded July-early August 1973; on side 2 of Pin Ups. The backstory on Billy Boy Arnold came mainly from Unterberger’s extensive interview with Arnold, done in the ’90s.

Top: Ute Mahler, “Untitled,” from the series Living Together, 1973.

Everything’s Alright

July 13, 2010

Everything’s Alright (The Mojos, 1964).
Everything’s Alright (Bowie).
Everything’s Alright (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Everything’s Alright (1980 Floor Show outtakes).

Pin Ups is the oft-forgotten runt of David Bowie’s Seventies albums. By the summer of 1973, Bowie, who had been touring since spring ’72, was exhausted and empty. He hadn’t written a song in half a year and RCA wanted a new record. So he made a covers album. RCA would have some fresh product for Christmas (and it would sell, too, hitting #1 in the UK) and Bowie would buy some time.

Bowie told an interviewer that Pin Ups‘ dozen covers were all “records I have back at home,” while on the LP sleeve he wrote that he had seen most of the bands at clubs like the Marquee or the Ricky-Tick. But these songs weren’t, for the most part, by Bowie’s primary musical influences. There’s no Jacques Brel, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Scott Walker, Anthony Newley, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc. Only Pete Townshend and Ray Davies perhaps qualified. On Pin Ups, Bowie mainly covered his jobbing contemporaries: the bands who had beat him out on the charts, who had outperformed him on stage, and who he had outlived.

Pin Ups was also crafted to serve two distinct audiences. For the British, it was a nostalgic tribute, with Bowie revisiting pop hits from nearly a decade before. So the record fit in well with the future-throwback ethos of the period, with the burgeoning “Fifties” revival (see “Drive In Saturday”), David Essex getting a hit song with a lyric composted from ’50s rock & roll choruses, or neo-Teddy Boy bands like Mud.

For Americans, though, Pin Ups might as well have been marketed as a new Bowie record. Only “Friday on My Mind,” “Here Comes the Night” and “Shapes of Things” had been US Top 40 hits. Bowie’s picks were generally obscurities, like a Kinks B-side, or tracks by bands unknown to Americans like The Mojos and the Merseys.

Most of these groups were young, decidedly unprofessional, seemingly more at home practicing for a teen dance than going out on national tour…they exemplified the berserk pleasure that comes with being on stage outrageous, the relentless middle-finger drive and determination offered only by rock & roll at its finest.

Lenny Kaye, Nuggets liner notes.

Most of all, Pin Ups‘ key counterpart was Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets 2-LP garage rock compilation, released in fall 1972*. The early ’70s, a time when the first generation who had grown up with rock & roll were having children, was unsurprisingly when the “official” history of rock & roll was being drafted. Call it the Whig (or Rolling Stone) theory of rock music, one which begins with, say, Bill Haley and culminates in Dark Side of the Moon: basically, it’s a steady climb from primitive teenage dance music up towards “relevance” and “complexity” with occasional refreshing dips back into “roots” music.

Nuggets/Pin Ups created a counter-narrative, which basically became the punk rebuttal: immediacy over history, the disposable trashy single over the concept LP, spontaneity over chops, with lyrics centered on dancing, alienation and sex. Yet Bowie didn’t commit to this line either, as on Pin Ups he often interpreted basic pop singles as campy affectations, sometimes seemingly at war with his more traditionalist band.

The oldest track Bowie covered on Pin Ups was The Mojos‘ “Everything’s Alright,” which had hit the Top 10 in Britain in March 1964. The Mojos were a Liverpool band who got better gigs and national singles by riding The Beatles’ coattails, along with other Mersey acts like The Big Three, Billy J. Kramer and Gerry and the Pacemakers. The Mojos followed their first single, the fantastic envy-ridden “They Say You Found a New Baby”, with “Everything’s Alright” (written as “Al’right” on the label), which seems inspired by the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout”: it’s a primal stomper crafted to get a club audience screaming.

“Everything’s Alright” barely has a verse, just a couple of lines to fill spaces between choruses, where the beatific promise of “everything’s alright” is fulfilled with “let me hold your hand—be your lovin’ man” or “let me give you lovin’ like nobody can” repeated like mantras. The chorus is standard IV-I-V, with the dominant (G) coming on “let me hold your hand”: the band rides the chorus until it nearly breaks, then spurs the song further with a step-by-step move from C to F. It’s a record of pure pleasure, offering the wonderful lie that it, or the dance, or the teenage night, will somehow never end, and just keep building to greater and greater excitement. So the single’s sudden collapse ending, with the final “everything’s alright” delivered with exhaustion, seems tragic.

Bowie’s version has some tight playing by Mick Ronson, Mike Garson and Trevor Bolder, and it’s dominated by Bowie’s new drummer, Aynsley Dunbar. Dunbar not only gave Bowie some cred, as he had played on the original Mojos track (so possibly he suggested covering it) but he’s also a far more dynamic presence on record then the steady but unspectacular Woody Woodmansey, who’d been sacked before the Pin Ups sessions (on his wedding day!). Bowie sings the verses pretty straight, undermines his chorus with a set of goony backing vocals.

“Everything’s Alright” ultimately lacks the original’s punch, as is the case with most of the Pin Ups covers. The original tracks were mainly recorded live in the studio, direct to two- or four-track, and mixed in mono, while the Pin Ups covers were given clinical, dry production by Ken Scott, with a stereo mix that sometimes confines Ronson’s guitar to one channel and often buries Bowie’s backing vocals. Back-to-back comparison of the originals and Pin Ups often makes the Bowie versions sound dissipated.

Recorded ca. July 1973, and Bowie performed “Everything’s Alright” in his 1980 Floor Show on 19 October 1973. It’s a respectably manic version that comes close to parody thanks to the spastic dance moves of Bowie’s backing singers.

Top: Don McCullin, “East End, London, 1973.”

* I’ll get to other major counterpart to Pin Ups, Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things, when we hit “Sorrow” in a few weeks.